Dining

Review: 8 Rivers Modern Caribbean

Delivering complex island flavors in LoDo.

May 2009

8 Rivers Modern Caribbean
(out of 4 stars)
1550 Blake St., 303-623-3422

The Draw Complex Caribbean flavors.
The Drawback Inconsistent service.
Don't Miss The jerk chicken, jerk steak, stewed oxtail, Dirty Mojito, and Estate and Captain's Collection rum flights.
Vegetarian Options Jerk tofu and callaloo, veggie Ital (veggies in Jamaican curry).

It was the 12-foot rendering of the legendary Bob Marley, visible through 8 Rivers' front window, that first caught my eye. Then it was the menu listing all things jerk—wings, steak, chicken, even tofu—that coaxed me through the door, with the Marley lyric "So one cup of coffee, then I'll go" floating on my lips.

Once seated inside the dining room painted the shades of sand and earth, I quickly traded the idea of hot coffee for the Dirty Mojito—a smooth cocktail of brown natural cane sugar and muddled fresh mint—that came highly recommended by my server.

8 Rivers, owned by chef Scott Durrah and his wife, Wanda James, captures the soul of the West Indies by serving the spicy, smoky, slow-cooked dishes of the Caribbean. Durrah learned the nuances of Jamaican jerk—the technique of slathering meat and fish with marinades of peppers, herbs, and spices before wrapping them in plantain leaves and steaming the bundles over smoky pits—when he lived in Jamaica for 10 years.

There, the Massachusetts native, whose heritage is Jamaican and Italian, befriended local grandmothers and mothers, and cooked alongside them to learn the cuisine first-hand. Durrah eventually returned to the United States where he opened the Jamaican Café in Santa Monica to wide acclaim.

Despite the restaurant's success, Durrah's wife (who had gone to college in Boulder) was feeling the itch to move back to the Rocky Mountains. In the fall of 2004, the couple relocated to Colorado and opened 8 Rivers in Superior, before closing shop after a short time and reopening it in Highlands Square.

Though the spot at 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard was open for two years, I never made it there—which may be fortuitous since the eatery had a reputation for inconsistent food and service. But it appears that when Durrah shuttered the Highland location in favor of opening in LoDo last August, he smoothed out most of the bumps.

The first indication of this shift was an order of the sizzling jerk wings ($7). Tinged with pepper, garlic, and fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers, bites of the tender wings were cooled ever-so-slightly by Durrah's homemade ranch dressing. Shortly thereafter, tiny jerk pork loin tips ($8)—slow-cooked, miniature pork ribs—arrived, tasting of spice and smoke.

I dipped an order of escovitch shrimp ($9), eight succulent and lightly breaded jumbo shrimp, in a spicy vinaigrette with chile overtones. The starter, with its zesty dressing, contributed a welcome lightness to the trio of appetizers.

Durrah's signature jerk chicken entrée ($17) is an icon of Jamaican cooking. Marinated in pimiento, allspice, and pepper, the slow-cooked chicken tasted sultry—almost cinnamony—and slightly sweet, with just a hint of smoke. Likewise, the jerk steak ($19-$30) arrived medium rare, well seasoned with garlic, and licked with flames. The entrées were served, as all are, with the classic accompaniments of a genuine Jamaican meal: red beans, golden fried plantains, seasonal vegetables, and rice boiled in coconut milk.

With my Mojito long gone, I considered ordering an ice-cold Red Stripe beer (a Jamaican favorite) but instead turned to 8 Rivers' collection of 55 different rums. Sipping the Estate Collection of four Appleton reserves ($15), I let the nuances of sweet butterscotch and caramel tame the heat from my dinner.

The rum played a natural bridge to dessert, particularly the cinnamon-raisin bread pudding ($5.50) and vanilla-raisin ice cream ($5). Although I found the bread pudding too dense, I loved the smooth, island flavors of the ice cream, especially when coupled with a rich cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee ($6 for a two-cup press), one of the most highly acclaimed coffees in the world.

8 Rivers' sultry flavors of spice and smoke smack of the tropics, and yet they're a perfect fit in LoDo. Much of that has to do with Blake Street being an avenue of ethnic eats. Looking out the door of the restaurant, you'll find Indian, Moroccan, and Mexican up the block, and Irish, Spanish, and New American within a short walk. Suddenly, far-flung Caribbean flavors feel comfortable—and right at home.